Monthly Archives: December 2011

Dog Joins the Monkeysphere

This is just another instance wherein an animal which comes to community attention as an individual (rather than as an anonymous member of a group) suddenly joins the Monkeysphere and becomes worthy of a social bond.

Nobody wanted to adopt an anonymous beagle when he was one of hundreds of unwanted dogs and cats at a shelter in Alabama.  “Hundreds of unwanted dogs and cats” is a huge, vague concept, and it’s hard to form a social bond with, or feel one is personally able to help, “hundreds of unwanted dogs and cats”.  However, once he was brought to national consciousness as an individual dog with a name, people fought over the right to adopt him and a home was almost immediately found.

This is, by the way, why savvy shelters post individual web pages for each animal, with a little story about each, and a name for everybody.  It’s hard to open your heart to “181406M”, but it’s easy to find a soft spot for “Daniel”.

(Daniel, by the way, now has his own blog, and is working to abolish the use of gas chambers for euthanasia of pets in Pennsylvania via Daniel’s Law.  See what you can do when you have a name?)

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One Step Forward, One Step Back: Gassing Chickens

via Cheetah100, Flickr Creative Commons

As described in many, many, many books and videos (but especially accessibly by this book, in case you’re interested), large slaughterhouses can process so many animals per hour that workers on the assembly line can have to deal with as many as one animal every five seconds (depending on species).  This causes “sloppy workmanship” on the part of the workers, manifesting itself in animals “stunned” badly or not at all, injuries to animals and workers as conscious animals are “stuck”, “legged”, or dunked in tanks of scalding water…um, anyway, high speeds in large slaughterhouses are bad, primarily because handling so many animals, so quickly, makes it possible for humane killing methods to “miss”, and for animals to go through the butchering process not only alive, but conscious.

There seems to be a movement afoot that at first looks like a great idea: some factories here and there have picked up on the idea of “sedating”/”stunning”/”gassing” the animals with carbon dioxide to make sure they are unconscious before being killed.  On the one hand, this is a great step forward.  A slaughterhouse is actually considering the needs of the animals it is processing and trying to make the experience less stressful for them.  Yes, the slaughterhouse will benefit from this: the birds will be less damaged on packaging (less wasted meat) and of course they will be able to put “humanely slaughtered” on all their packaging, so it’s not as though it’s all altruistic, but still: baby steps.

On the other hand — speaking as someone who has personally “euthanized” hundreds of mice via carbon dioxide and seen others do so — this is not a foolproof answer.  CO2 euthanasia is only a quiet, peaceful death if it is performed very slowly, very carefully, on one animal at a time.  (Even that’s debatable — there’s still a happy section of science cheerfully turning out papers on whether or not CO2 euthanasia is “euthanasia” at all.)  I strongly suspect that the fast-paced world of the high-volume slaughterhouse is not going to combine well with the slow and careful process of humane CO2 euthanasia.  Captive-bolt stunning, which is already used by the factories, is, in itself, a humane procedure.  However, the speed at which a large slaughterhouse operates renders captive-bolt stunning inhumane because proper procedures are unable to be followed and the animals are not properly stunned.  I think the same issues will affect CO2 euthanasia if it is used in high-volume slaughterhouse operations.

First, the size of the operation itself is going to induce pressure to make the process of filling the gas chamber, which should be a carefully monitored, slow procedure, a quick-and-dirty one.  The chicken factory mentioned in the link above, at least, appears to be talking about processing hundreds of birds at a time — according to the article, the containers in which the birds are shipped to the plant will go into a huge CO2 chamber, which will need to be room sized at least.  How to fill such a room?  Recommendations vary, but the average is something like 10% of room air replaced with CO2 per minute — that’s at least ten minutes to fill the chamber with gas.  (There are arguments for and against pre-filling the chamber with gas, or using faster filling speeds, but that discussion must be saved for a different article.)  The chamber will then need to be cleared of gas before workers enter and remove the birds (or the workers will need breathing apparatus).  This is all going to take time, which high-speed workers do not have.

Second, the size of the room is going to affect the facility’s ability to deliver gas properly to every animal.  Birds further from the gas vents will be affected at different rates than birds next to the vents.  Also, since CO2 is heavier than air, the birds at the top of the room will be affected differently than birds at the bottom.  What will assure that every animal: a) is rendered completely unconscious, b) remains unconscious for butchering?  In a room of sufficient size it is possible for the outermost birds at the bottom of the room to be dead while the birds in the center on the top are still conscious.  If workers are filling and emptying the room at high speeds, this problem is actually quite likely.  (There are already documented reports of dogs surviving similar gas chambers at humane shelters.)

Third, many laboratory euthanasia standards recommend euthanizing animals by CO2 one at a time (or in small familiar groups in their home cages).  (However, it should be noted that the official AVMA line on this is that the gas “chambers should not be overcrowded”, and indeed, some facilities routinely toss a bunch of animals all into one cage for euthanasia to save time.)  This is because animals can detect the intrusion of CO2.  They often become alarmed and disoriented before they go down, running, kicking, squealing, and generally acting agitated.  This does not promote quiet, calm, peaceful behavior — this promotes a room full of shrieking, flapping, alarmed and disoriented birds.

Apparently they’ve been trying CO2 euthanasia on pigs tooThis article suggests that all the agitation takes place after loss of consciousness and that the pigs are completely out cold while “convulsions, vocalization, reflex struggling, breath holding, and tachypnea” occur.  I’ll admit I’ve never seen a pig euthanized by CO2, but I must say I have some reservations about how “unconscious” the mice and rats I euthanized were while they underwent “Guedel’s second stage of anesthesia“.

I applaud these factories for trying to make the treatment of the animals with whom they are working more humane.  (I am an animal trainer at heart, and I know to reward “baby steps”, no matter how small.)  However, I believe these factories are not treating the correct problem (which is generally that the facility is trying to process too many animals for its capacity, and using pressured, underpaid, and under-trained workers).

Dinners, Dinners Everywhere — Why Can’t I Eat Them?

In my job I have a very small period allotted for lunch, no real ability to leave the office to buy food, and the usual dubious and communal utensils with which to cook anything I choose to bring.  Prefabricated, fast-food or otherwise “convenient” meals strongly appeal to me: quick to cook, taking no brainpower to prepare, and highly portable.  They are also great for portion control — my current diet is big on counting calories and I love little packages which have done all the dirty work for me and don’t tempt me to overeat.

It is a terrible shame that I can’t eat them.

I am avoiding, for hundreds of extremely good reasons that I’m trying to tackle one at a time, factory-farmed meat.  Some of the biggest consumers of factory-farmed meat are the people who are producing these helpful little meals: using the cheapest possible ingredients (including meat) is how they make these meals affordable.  It’s pretty much impossible to find anything cheap and/or convenient which is not made out of factory farmed meat, eggs, or dairy.

The irony is, of course, that meat is generally more expensive than vegetables.  The producers could make their meals even cheaper, and possibly even better for you, by substituting meat with beans or another source of protein in at least some of their dinners.  Instead, they produce dish after dish with meat thrown in.  Going along the freezer case is another exciting revisit to the Monty Python “spam” sketch: pasta with chicken, pasta with beef, pasta with pork; vegetables with chicken; vegetables with beef, vegetables with pork; potatoes with chicken, potatoes with beef, potatoes with pork…spam spam spam spam spam…

The meat in the meals even appears generally in only tiny amounts, almost as an afterthought.  Check out this (fascinating) site which reviews frozen meals — notice it takes scrolling back quite a long way to find a single vegetarian entree — and take note of how much meat there is in each meal.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper and better for everyone to, occasionally, just take the meat out, bill the thing as a vegetable/pasta dish and be done with it?

Badly Aimed Spam

This blog just received a spam comment (in German) from a site called “High Protein Recipes”.   I probably shouldn’t reward them for that behavior by mentioning their name, but I’m finding it pretty hard to imagine a less well-aimed piece of advertising.

It’s probably all my mentions of meat (and spam)….

Killing a Tree for Christmas is a Good Idea?

Christmas treeThis is one of those weird places where my immediate reaction — why do I need to rip a perfectly good tree out of the ground to celebrate a national holiday — is not necessarily the one with which I end up after doing further research.

Every year around this time, I am saddened by the appearance of tree yards, full of perfectly healthy little trees that have been cut down so they can spend a month in someone’s living room and then be tossed out with the trash.  Now, I am aware that trees do not feel pain, and it can’t be argued that tree farms are cruel to the trees — it just seems like a waste to me.  When I began doing research on the subject I was prepared to find environmental groups going bonkers about how the tree farms take up animal habitat, cover the world in pesticides, and produce x percent of “waste” trees which clog up landfills.  And, indeed, I found those articles, or at least the ones about pesticides.  Tree farms actually provide animal habitat, and “waste” trees (as well as “used” trees after the holidays) are taken care of via “treecycling” programs, which appear to recycle about 94% of all trees used in the US.  Impressive!

Instead of a lot of vitriol about tearing down forests and destroying the environment for holiday ornaments, I found this interesting little article from National Geographic explaining why living trees overall use a smaller carbon/water footprint, are biodegradable and can be used to create mulch and/or animal habitat, are not made of non-renewable petroleum products like artificial trees, and how the living tree farms support 100,000 American workers.  This article from the New York Times also points out that the tree farms produce oxygen while they grow, provide animal habitat, and help fix carbon in the soil.  They also provide an alternative crop for farms having difficulty raising other crops on their land.  Both seem to be referring to this 2009 study by Ellipsos, an environmental consulting firm in Montreal, Canada, which concluded that, unless the fake tree was re-used for more than ten years, the real tree was generally the better environmental choice.

Overall, the worst option seems to be the imported (i.e., the cheap) artificial tree, which is made with non-renewable petroleum byproducts in factories that burn fossil fuels for power, and can be contaminated with lead.  The best, or at least the most eco-friendly, option appears to be either to decorate a tree which is already living in your front yard or to purchase a “balled” or potted living tree which can be replanted after the holiday (now there’s a great idea for a tradition).  In the middle, the real tree seems to have edged out the fake, despite my immediate reaction of Why should I kill a tree for this holiday?

Hmm!  Live and learn!

Animal Capable of Human Speech is Remembered for Smoking Cigarettes

Various news sources are telling me that a “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee” passed away on Saturday, December 10.  The name of the chimp in question is Booee (or Booie), and this immediately pinged my memory: was that not the name of a signing chimp — one of the chimps that researcher Roger Fouts communicated with while he was raising Washoe, arguably the most famous of the signing chimps?

Image from Wildlife Waystation Facebook

I wasn’t hallucinating.  Here’s a link to a heart-rending little scene from the book Next of Kin, where Fouts describes meeting Booee again after many years apart.  And that’s the same Booee, a lifelong lab animal, unwilling participant in probably several dozen experiments until being briefly featured on a television show made him less than political to keep.  He was moved to the Wildlife Waystation in California in October, 1995.

This particular chimpanzee could speak to humans.  He used sign language to do so, but he could do so — one of the first of a tiny wave of “animals” which could speak a human language.  He was part of the community that helped open the door between humans and their closest cousins, the great apes, and helped to start the (still ongoing) movement which is trying to get chimpanzees out of the laboratory.  He is part of the snowball that started the avalanche of things like the Great Ape Protection Act, which would have been unthinkable when Booee was born.  This guy is one of the founders of a little, slow, quiet revolution in the way humans think about animals.

And something like 90% of his obituaries say “he was on television once”, “he smoked cigarettes”, and “he begged for candy”.  Why are those chosen as his defining attributes?  Are they just the only ones the news outlets think we’ll understand?  Booee is a historical figure.  He did a lot for animal/human understanding and the promotion of the idea that animals are not just automatons with fur.  It might be hard to encapsulate the meaning of what he was, what he did and the way he changed the world into a blog-sized sound bite, but “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee”?  Is that all we can come up with?

I know that the news media are just trying to garner readers, and that “cigarette smoking chimpanzee” probably: a) resonates better for most people than does “signing chimpanzee” and b) is “cuter” and more “sound bite friendly”.  But please — is that the only thing you can think of to say?  (Here’s the Wildlife Waystation obituary for Booee, in case you’d like to see how to do it with class.)

Bad Animal Husbandry Has Consequences

Scared Sheepless by Chris Ayers Design

Image from "The Daily Zoo" by Chris Ayers - http://www.chrisayersdesign.com

Two ranch-hands in Wyoming contracted Campylobacter jejuni infections via castrating lambs with their teeth.

I’m sure that, with some effort, they could have found some other way to do that.

This is one of those situations where I can see both with the eyes of an animal welfarist and with those of a ranch hand.  The animal welfarist says, “Why are you doing that with no anesthetic?!?  With your teeth?  Why are you castrating them at all?  You could just [insert high-maintenance management program, expensive castration alternative, or impossible immediate job switch here]!”  The ranch hand says, “I have 1,600 sheep to do — can you imagine what it would cost, or how long it would take to anesthetize every one?  Or to separate every adult ram, because they’ll fight?”

(Hate this problem?  Ask why they have 1,600 baby sheep — they have such a large flock because they’ve been forced to expand their business to compete with even larger companies, to supply people who buy wool sweaters and ground lamb from enormous box stores.  Buy local, and know what you’re buying.)

Either way, this is another one of those horrible consequences of exceeding the Monkeysphere — the sheep have become items, not individuals — and of assembly-lining the process.  Forced to do something 1,600 times in a short period, the ranch hands found the fastest, lowest-effort way they could in which to do it.  I notice that no-one checked to see if the sheep caught anything from their mouths!

Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)

Letter from an Anonymous Shelter Manager Rings True

This has been traveling around with no reference of source:

“I think our society needs a huge “Wake-up” call. As a shelter manager, I am going to share a little insight with you all…a view from the inside if you will.

First off, all of you breeders/sellers should be made to work in the “back” of an animal shelter for just one day. Maybe if you saw the life drain from a few sad, lost, confused eyes, you would change your mind about breeding and selling to people you don’t even know.”

….click here for the rest.

Speaking as someone who has worked with rescue people, and interviewed (if not worked) and volunteered at multiple animal shelters, I’d just like to second this, and point out that, while the language is a bit emphatic and there may be slight exaggeration for emphasis, the exaggeration is slight.  And the picture of the pile of cats?  Absolutely, 100% true to life, or, rather, true to death.  That’s a full-size walk in freezer, and imagine how many animals the pictured facility must “handle” per year that they needed to purchase such a thing.  And that’s one facility.

Does this piss you off?  Scare you?  Make you want to hug your kitties?  Do something about it.  Donate to your local shelter so it can keep animals longer or pay for kennel cough treatment.  Ask how you can help educate people about adoption and encourage people to adopt.  Above all, don’t get mad at the shelters…they are just dealing, as best they can, with the problem.  They didn’t cause it.  Does this photo, this article, make you sick?  Help your local animal shelter.  Help fix the problem.